September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day.

I remember the very last time I saw by former college boyfriend, standing outside Jose Muldoon’s restaurant on Tejon Street in Colorado Springs. We had met for drinks since I was in town, visiting from back east where I then lived. It had been years since we had gotten together, and I still had the weak knees thing happening when I saw him, a beautiful but troubled man.

While we talked on the back patio of the restaurant that warm August night, he said something about “living by a certain philosophy and being prepared to die by it.” I thought it was a reference to his having survived cancer a few years before, a brush with death, and I didn’t think anything else about it.

Later, saying goodbye on the sidewalk, I said I would see him next summer and he said simply “No, you won’t see me again.” As I drove away I remember feeling vaguely confused by that statement, but then dismissing it. Of course I will see you again, I thought, don’t be so dramatic.

I boarded the train the next morning, and by the time I arrived back east, my friend was dead. He had taken his own life by driving his car off the road in the mountains that he loved. Suddenly his statements made a crushing sense to me. He knew he would never see me again, and he was truly prepared to die.

At first there was disbelief, it wasn’t real. I called the Springs newspaper and asked if there had been an obituary. I needed proof, hard evidence. It was there. I still needed more. I called the police outside the town where it happened and heard the officer who found him tell me what happened, how there were no brake marks. I asked for a copy of the police report to be sent to me.

Denial is a buffer. It buys us a bit of time before the screaming pain of reality forces us to see what we cannot fathom.

I spent the next four years believing that I should have known, that I could have stopped him, and punishing myself because I didn’t. My grief for his loss was weaved into my guilt for not getting what he was saying that night, for not knowing what he was planning, and for not saving him. I don’t know to this day, twenty years later, if I could have stopped him, but I cannot live with thinking that I could have and didn’t. It is a compromise I have come to with myself so that I can attend to my own life again. And forgive myself, and him.

A death by suicide leaves loved ones not only with grief, but with unanswered and often unanswerable questions. It leaves us feeling guilty for what we said or did, or didn’t say or do. It leaves us with anger at the one who took their own life because they took it away from us, but then it hobbles us from expressing that anger because we are already consumed by guilt.

Clients will sometimes come to me for counseling because they have lost someone to suicide, and they want the pain to go away. I can’t do that. I’m not that good. It just is painful, and when I remember my friend I still feel that punch in the stomach shock of sadness. I don’t know how to ever look at this kind of loss and have it make sense to me, but I have eventually been able to bear it without losing my own life bit by bit, and I try to help my clients do the same.

Obviously we can’t go back and change what we said or didn’t say to someone we have lost to suicide, but we can make sure in our present lives that we listen carefully to our loved ones. When we hear something concerning, or observe behaviors like giving away prized possessions, we can do the one thing that might make a difference. We can ask. Ask them if they are thinking of harming themselves, ask them to talk to you and offer to listen. Don’t let fear of what you might hear stop you.

When people are thinking of or planning suicide they most often make statements to those around them. The majority of people who die by suicide have said something to someone in their family or social circles, often in the hope that someone will intervene; listen, ask, care.

The following list of suicide risk factors and warning signs is from the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education website:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself.
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or buying a gun.
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
  • Talking about being a burden to others.
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawn or feeling isolated.
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.
  • Preoccupation with death.
  • Suddenly happier, calmer.
  • Loss of interest in things one cares about.
  • Visiting or calling people to say goodbye.
  • Making arrangements; setting one’s affairs in order.
  • Giving things away, such as prized possessions.

Learn these warning signs, and if you ever observe these signs in someone you know, ask them if they are thinking of harming themselves. If they are, or even if you think they are, get them to a mental health professional or a hospital emergency room immediately for assessment. You can also seek help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

It is a difficult question to ask, I get that. But not asking can be much more difficult.

Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy in Denver, CO. She provides individual, couples, and family therapy through Maria Droste Counseling Center.

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by Chris Lewis Ed.S., LPC